Colle di Val d'Elsa, locally known simply as Colle, stands on the oldest part of a hill a few miles from San Gimignano and Monteriggioni. Straddling the ancient Via Francigena, it has always been a thoroughfare for pilgrims and travellers, who would stop here to rest beneath its distinctive tower-houses. These constructions rise up right across the town: no longer inhabited, they nevertheless contribute to the unique urban profile. One of these towers is famous for having been home to the artist Arnolfo di Cambio, sculptor, architect and student of the influential Nicola Pisano.
For centuries, Colle Val d'Elsa has been the capital of crystal, to the extent that its nickname is the "Bohemia of Italy". Glasses, wine goblets and dishes are shaped from a mix of flair, skill and inherited craftsmanship, which is why the town produces almost all of Italy's high-end glassware. Go to the Crystal Museum (currently under reconstruction) if you want to get to know the tricks of the trade and learn about the art of glassblowing. You could be even more proactive and attend a demonstration in one of the artisan workshops, or at one of the events in the historic centre.
The oldest part of Colle, Colle Alta, is also the part where visitors will inhale the atmosphere that most savours of history. Walking through the medieval streets, you will come across precious collections like in the Civic Museum of Sacred Art, in the Palazzo dei Priori, or the Ranuccio Bianchi Bandinelli Museum, which focuses on archaeology. But you can also admire the cathedral and the former Conservatory of San Pietro, which was designed by Giorgio Vasari's nephew or grandson, called Giorgio Vasari the Younger. Anyone who wants to gaze a bit further need only go up to the Baluardo, a fortification that offers a view over the whole valley.
On a little hill opposite the castle stands the church and convent of San Francesco, which was built in the thirteenth century on the site where Francis' first followers would assemble for common prayer.
On the other side of the town you find the Sentierelsa: a 4km-long route that runs alongside the river Elsa, which is famed for its unusual turquoise colour. The path, which starts at San Marziale and finishes at Ponte di Spugna, is dotted with bridges, boardwalks and steps, and places with facilities and rest areas. One of the highlights of the walk is the Diborrato, a waterfall some 15 metres high, which plunges into a deep blue lake.
Thanks to the springs that feed the river Elsa, the water level does not vary greatly over the course of the year. This makes it the ideal place for riversports like soft rafting.
If walking is more your thing, though, you can walk section 32 of the Via Francigena to reach San Gimignano or, in the other direction, the village of Monteriggioni. Cycling enthusiasts can unearth the beauty of the gentle Tuscan hills by following any of the numerous tracks that connect the crystal city with the other hilltowns of the Val d'Elsa, like this cycle route from Colle to San Gimignano.
Colle celebrates its patron saint San Marziale on the first of July, with music, markets, food stalls and traditional fireworks. The Fiera della Miseria occupies Piazza Santa Caterina every weekend in June: this culinary festival presents the flavours of old Tuscan poor cuisine. Dishes served up include ribollita, charcuterie, fagioli all'uccelletto and homemade sweets and cakes.
On the fourth Saturday of every month, the Mercatale comes to Piazza Arnolfo di Cambio. This producers' market is full of stalls with craft objects and locally produced foods.
The Colle di Val d'Elsa area produces some excellent sheep milk cheese, from Pecorino Toscano DOP to pecorino seasoned in walnut leaves or with truffles.
The area is also known for its Cinta Senese DOP and other cold cuts, such as Finocchiona IGP, Prosciutto Toscano DOP, rigatino and soprassata. The most notable local wine is Chianti Colli Senesi, a young red that goes perfectly with charcuterie, bread soups, grilled and roasted pork and lightly seasoned cheeses.